How worried should we be?
- BuyCommand and Control by Eric Schlosser
Penguin, 632 pp, £25.00, September 2013, ISBN 978 1 84614 148 5
‘Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.’ That’s known as Murphy’s Law. It’s invoked in all sorts of settings, but its natural modern home is in engineering, where it is generally attributed to a remark made around 1950 by an aeronautical engineer called Ed Murphy, who was working on the design of rocket sleds at Edwards Air Force Base in California. In the mid-1950s, when Murphy’s Law wasn’t yet widely known under that name, Admiral Lewis L. Strauss, reflecting on the political and administrative troubles afflicting him, suggested that ‘a new law of knowledge’ be recognised and called Strauss’s Law after him: ‘If anything bad can happen, it probably will.’ At the time, Strauss was chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, which had the responsibility for producing and maintaining America’s nuclear weapons, and the things that can go wrong with the control of such weapons are as bad as it gets.
Vol. 36 No. 5 · 6 March 2014
Steven Shapin doesn’t mention what was perhaps the closest we have yet come to all-out nuclear war (LRB, 23 January). On 27 October 1962, at the tensest moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vasili Arkhipov, second-in-command of the Soviet nuclear submarine B-59, blocked an order to fire nuclear-powered missiles in retaliation for an attack by US destroyers. Even though B-59 was in international waters, and hence outside the exclusion zone the US had decreed around Cuba, the US destroyers were dropping depth charges to force the submarine to the surface. B-59 was so deep that it was receiving no radio signals from either Moscow or Washington and its captain believed that war might already have broken out. Fortunately, Soviet rules of engagement required the unanimity of the three most senior officers in a submarine before a nuclear missile could be launched. Arkhipov may literally have saved the world.
This incident was first revealed publicly in 2002 at a conference in Havana to mark the fortieth anniversary of the crisis, attended by surviving political leaders and military commanders from Cuba, the US and the former Soviet Union. Robert McNamara, US secretary of defense during the crisis, stated at the conference that ‘we came very close’ to nuclear war, ‘closer than we knew at the time’.